Sunday, August 9, 2015

TRAVEL | The haunting but nearly wasted beauty of the Nagcarlan Underground Cemetery

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Remnants of a once glorious past.

Forgive me for the rather depressing title but that's exactly how I would sum up my impression of the Nagcarlan Underground Cemetery in Nagcarlan, Laguna. It was my first time to visit. (I know, shame on me considering it's not really that much of a drive from Metro Manila.)

But at least I finally made that trip. We were comfortably holed up at Sitio de Amor in San Pablo at the time but managed to force our butts out of bed and drove to Nagcarlan and later, Liliw. Nagcarlan is a 45-minute or so leisurely drive from San Pablo and you'll reach the cemetery before hitting the town proper. It's on the left side of the road right across a Shell gas station.

Declared a National Historical Landmark in the 1970s, the cemetery dates back to Spanish colonial times and is regarded as the only underground cemetery in the country. Following the declaration, no more burials were allowed in the cemetery; the last one was in the early 80s. It is currently under the supervision of the National Historical Commission.

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The Nagcarlan Underground Cemetery entrance.

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Save for the houses in the background, the cemetery complex is a beautiful sight with well-maintained grounds.

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From the opposite end of the cemetery grounds, the view is just as stunning, especially with that mountain in the background (Is it Mt Banahaw?).

A beautiful baroque arch of concrete and red bricks beckons, ushering visitors inside a nicely maintained lawn surrounded by a circular concrete and iron grill fencing. A brick pathway cuts through the middle and leads straight to the chapel, from which curved walls of apartment-style tombs extend on both sides.

The chapel's facade features a trio of small altars that are now empty. Whatever religious figures were there before, it pains me to see them all gone. The chapel's exterior is but a shadow of a once glorious past. However, it still is beautiful whichever way you see it.

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The chapel's facade, all three altars now empty.

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Walls of apartment-style tombs stretch from the chapel in the middle.

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I noticed how some tombstones have mini-gates.

A huge logbook resting on a lectern greets visitors immediately upon entering the chapel. The manangs selling local delicacies and souvenir items by the door requested that we enter our names and residence in the logbook so they can track tourist arrivals. There is no entrance fee whatsoever.

Looking around I was soon filled with regret over what was left of the chapel. I winced at the sight of grossly vandalized walls, a testament to our collective lack of regard for heritage -- or for other people's property to begin with. I could only make out traces of faded paintings on the walls and on the wooden planks on the ceiling, half of which, by the way, are already gone. It's just really sad that they haven't been preserved any sooner.

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Inside the chapel.

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Wasted beauty: wooden planks on the ceiling a-missing.

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Curse all those idiots who did this!

Since no burials are allowed here anymore, the chapel is only used for special occasions, like for pabasa (a reading of the passion of Jesus Christ in chant form) during Holy Week. To the right is a flight of stairs that leads to the crypt a few feet below ground. This is the actual underground cemetery.

The last set of steps ends right at the crypt's transept and much like a lot of churches, you'll quickly realize it follows the shape of a cross. There's an altar, now empty, and a vaulted ceiling. There are 36 tombstones lined up on the walls, 12 of which are by the altar. I wondered what it would have taken someone back then to merit the privilege of being buried here. Also at some point in history the place served as a secret meeting place of leaders of the Katipunan (a revolutionary group against the Spaniards).

The crypt is an impressive architectural work involving some serious design. In spite of the darkness (even if they've installed a few lights), and if one just looks closely, he'll notice the meticulous paint job from the chipping concrete. Clearly, this wasn't just some dingy enclave of boring, dark concrete; it had color!

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Descending toward the actual underground cemetery.

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My first peak into the cemetery below ground.

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The transept's vaulted ceiling and the altar.

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A closer look at the altar. Creeped out yet?

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The rest of the crypt as viewed from the altar.

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This place evidently once had color.

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Proof that yes, this is definitely a cemetery.

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Just look at all the details at play here!

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Was half-expecting a ghost or something would show up.

It's really sad to see the crypt in advanced stages of decay. Yes, it does lend the place that aged charm but just how long can it withstand the elements? I don't know if the government had stepped in a little too late but I'm still thankful they did. At least they were able to put an immediate stop to all the vandalism and theft, if any. At least there are people cleaning the place. At least there are people to advise visitors against using flash photography to avert further damage (though no one was really watching downstairs). At least we can enjoy a well-tended lawn and walk by landscaped grounds outside.

At least the Nagcarlan Underground Cemetery is still there.

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For whatever it's worth, thank you to the Franciscan missionaries for this place.

The Nagcarlan Underground Cemetery is a 45-minute or so jeepney ride from San Pablo City, Laguna. It's also easy to find using Google Maps or Waze.

For directions to San Pablo, Laguna, check out my post on Sulyap Gallery Cafe.

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